Tag Archives: Bolton

Carelessness and Consequence En Route to Granny Oxford

This morning’s schedule is filled with a strict series of carefully coordinated train trips that will carry me from the south coast of England through London Town to the edge of the Cotswolds – Banbury, to be precise. There, my “adopted grandmother” will meet me when my final train for the day pulls into the station at 12:05, but much needs to fall into place first.

I Know Where You Live[d]!
Charlotte Walker, recorded as the informant of great grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton’s birth, lived at 3 Trinity Mews in Hastings so, naturally, I’m going to swing past the place before heading off to the station to catch my first train which leaves just after 08:00.

Trinity Mews is roughly a block and a bit away but I still jog-walk there for fear of being late for the first leg of my northbound journey. The property is marked as private so I don’t go in but snap a few pics from the street.

Oh, for more time (and a peek inside Number 3)! I long to uncover who Charlotte Walker was. All I know is that she was present at Great Grandma Kate’s birth but was she the midwife? A friend of the family? Perhaps there’s a baptism record or a newspaper clipping somewhere that would make the connection for me. Perhaps title deeds to the Trinity Mews residence would answer some questions. I wonder if I’ll ever know. For now, I have to content myself with standing outside the home of one who witnessed my great grandmother’s entrance into this world.

Monday Morning Madness
I motor back to Cambridge Gardens, snapping a spooky selfie on Brassey Steps as I go.

The Speedy, Spooky Selfie Snap on Brassey Steps.

I grab my bags, check out (i.e. leave the key in the door – foreign concept to a South African!) and make my way to Hastings Station. The platform is insanely busy and, I realise, it’s school rush hour. Consequently, the arrival of the train signals a rather tense jostle for position as I join the tide of satchels, briefcases and shopping bags vying for a spot on it. I only have 5 minutes between its arrival at Brighton and my next one’s departure for London Victoria, so can’t afford to miss it. There’s no sitting room left and those of us standing are so tightly packed that it takes a few attempts before the doors manage close successfully.

Thankfully, I make my connection to London Victoria and, with the train having emptied considerably, I peel off my backpack and find a seat. Barely an hour later, I wrestle my luggage onto my back again and hightail it through London Victoria to Victoria Underground Station. The direct route, amid all the construction, involves stairs and so it’s here that I’m particularly grateful to have my luggage on my back. I catch the underground to Oxford Circus and then once more from there to Marylebone.

I walk through to London Marylebone station and collect my ticket for my final train trip of the day from the self-service machine. Phew – what a morning! The platform for the Banbury departure is not yet listed on the boards so I grab a cappuccino while I wait – a fitting reward for a hectic schedule, skilfully executed. Until now.

I look up at the boards and notice that the platform for the 11-something to Banbury has now made an appearance. Shouldering my baggage once more, I make my way through the gates and bundle myself into a quiet carriage. It’s not long before we leave London behind and are cutting our way through the English countryside.

The Consequence of Carelessness
The train makes several stops along the way and, after about forty minutes or so, I almost instinctively become aware that it’s not going to make it to Banbury by 12:00. As I process this thought, I cast my mind back to the booking I’d made. I remember seeing another train scheduled to leave London Marylebone at around the same time as the one I’d chosen but it was scheduled to take almost an hour longer. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” was the thought that had gone through my head when I booked my ticket and now here I was, inadvertently aboard the wrong 11-something to Banbury 🙁

As the realisation dawned, my heart sank. The fact that I had caught the incorrect train and was going to arrive late at my destination didn’t bother me; it was that my adopted grandmother had offered to drive to Banbury to meet me at the station and now I wasn’t going to be there – that bothered me a great deal. Mortified at the thought, I scold myself severely before considering an appropriate course of action.

She doesn’t have a mobile phone (that I know of) but I wonder whether I can get hold of her before she leaves home. My mobile, which has thus far had no problems finding a network, now stubbornly refuses to connect. For the remainder of the trip, I continue trying to call, all to no avail. I fly out of the train as we eventually pull to a stop in Banbury. Swinging myself down the stairs, I frantically search the parking lot – nothing. I retrace my steps to the longer term parking – no sign of that familiar face there, either.

Catching public transport is the next option but I want to make certain she’s arrived home first and isn’t still searching for me. My phone has not yet found itself so it’s time to go old school and use the payphone. For that, I need the correct coins, which I don’t have, so I figure that’s a good enough reason to buy a Ribena in the station shop. Clutching my precious change, I make the call and discover she’s not yet there. After a ten minute wait, I try again and this time she picks up – yay! We chat briefly, I apologise profusely, and then dash out of the station building to hail a cab.

Granny Oxford
We negotiate the traffic out of Banbury and soon Oxfordshire is flying past in a blur of green. My thoughts turn to my adopted grandmother. She was a teacher at my mother’s school, George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh, back when my mother was a student there. They stayed in touch through the years and I met her during a trip to the UK with my mum in the 80s, I think.

We corresponded erratically after that and, years later, in the late 90s, while I was doing Oracle Forms development on a Fleet Management System in Bracknell, she helped me maintain some semblance of sanity during what was a particularly difficult time of long working hours and relentless project deadlines. Often, if I had a weekend off and it was my turn to use the pool car, I would head north on the hour and a half-ish drive to spend a couple of days with her. It was then that she began referring to me as her adopted granddaughter. One of my colleagues at the time dubbed her “Granny Oxford” and, while she lives in Oxfordshire, not Oxford, and isn’t my biological granny, the name stuck.

“Which way?” my driver asks suddenly, pulling me out of my reverie. I look around. I don’t usually come into Sibford this way but soon get my bearings, even though it’s been eight years since my last visit. I direct him the rest of the way and, a few minutes later, I’m hugging Granny Oxford and her sister, who now lives with her.

Home Away from Home
“Dinner’s not quite ready,” I’m told as I walk through the door, so I go upstairs to put my luggage down. Nothing has changed. The familiar guest room feels like home, from the pink paint on the walls to the rose-patterned curtains, to the window overlooking the apple tree in the front garden, to the wooden floor and the white dresser. I breath it all in deeply and exhale slowly before making my way downstairs again.

My bedroom window looking onto the apple tree.

Dinner (or lunch, as I know it) is a delicious stew, and is followed by dessert and an afternoon filled with catch-up chats. One of Granny Oxford’s outstanding characteristics is her incredible industriousness and that hasn’t changed either. She’s constantly baking or making or learning something. Her larder inevitably contains an array of home-baked goods, her hands are always busy and her calendar is usually covered with a generous sprinkling of appointments. She introduced me to needlework when I first met her and, on this particular evening, she’s putting the finishing touches on a Christmas stocking she’s made for the WI (Women’s Institute) meeting we’re apparently attending tomorrow 😉

Exhausted, I eventually fall into bed and drift off into contented slumber, but not before whispering a prayer of thanks for awesome adopted family 🙂

A Sunday Stroll to Church Then into Battle!

Kate Isabella Bolton’s parents, Alfred and Clara, were married in Emmanuel Church, Hastings, in 1877, and so my plan is to head there for a Sunday service and get to sit in the building where my great, great grandparents would have committed themselves to one another, almost 140 years ago.

Portion of “England. Certified Copy of an Entry of Marriage. General Register Office; Hastings, Sussex, December Quarter 1877, Volume 2b, Page 51, No 37 for Marriage of Alfred Bolton and Clara Pinny.”

It’s a fair walk but a beautiful morning for it, cool and bright. Seagulls squawk pleadingly overhead but, other than that, it’s still quiet out.

I stop briefly on the way to get some shots of Holy Trinity before heading up Castle Hill Road again. It’s a little more forgiving when one has a bit of time to spare!

Blessings
I reach the church with about half an hour to spare and wander the streets that surround it, appropriately named Vicarage, Priory and Emmanuel. As I do so, strains of 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) filter out of the building as musicians prepare for the service. It’s one of my favs and seems somehow appropriate. Gratitude gets my insides doing a little happy dance!

Just before 10:30, I make my way indoors just as two elderly ladies do the same. They notice I’m not a regular, introduce themselves and bustle me through the doors, introducing me to a number of other congregants along the way.

I file into a pew, trying to look inconspicuous, but a couple sitting behind me are eager to hear my story. We chat easily as I share where I’m from, why I’m here and where I’m heading, and they tell me something of themselves. It transpires that their daughter and her family had recently been holidaying in Orkney and so more threads of this amazing tapestry of connectedness reveal themselves, as the chords of 10,000 Reasons reach my ears for the second time today 🙂

Emmanuel Church, Hastings, Order of Service.

Afterwards, I’m graciously invited to stay to tea but have a train to catch and so say my goodbyes. The lady sitting behind me with her husband says, “We won’t forget this day,” and I swallow the lump in my throat – I walked into this building a total stranger and leave, barely an hour and a half later, blown away by the kindness and warmth of this beautiful community.

Pensive but filled with joy, I head back down the hill, admiring the splashes of colour, mostly pastels, that mark many Hastings houses.

Into Battle!
At the station, I buy a return ticket to Battle (I’m optimistic, you see!) and hop on the train. Battle, as you may have guessed, is a place rather than an event, although it is named after the Battle of Hastings which took place on this site in 1066. It’s also where William the Conqueror had an abbey built in gratitude for his victory over the Saxons and in penance for the blood that was shed. It’s a good 15-minute walk to the battlefield from Battle station and I find that I’ve arrived on a weekend commemorating the battle which took place here on 14 October, 949 years ago.

Consequently, Battle isn’t devoid of danger after all, for the place is teeming with people and almost every child is armed with a sword or axe of wood or plastic which they’re flailing around madly, at a height rather hazardous to adults! I take refuge in what remains of the chapter house and dormitory range.

I then head down to the battlefield, wandering among the Saxon tents, where battle preparations are underway. In keeping with the theme, I decide on a wild boar burger with applesauce for lunch – delish!

Then, sun glistening on their helmets and standards fluttering proudly, the Saxons, led by Harold, draw up battle lines to form their trusty shield wall. It has served them well in recent victories and, as long as it holds, they will stand. Soon, the Normans are deployed onto the battlefield, William the Conqueror leading them.

The battle rages and a skirmish sees William falling. In the confusion which follows, his men drop back, now unsure, faltering. William is alive but needs to prove it to his warriors. He remounts and removes his helmet, so they can see his face, as he rides along their lines.

A flank of the Norman army begins retreating. They’re pursued down the hill by a group of Saxons. William sees his next tactic demonstrated. He orders his army to repeat the retreat and, sure enough, some Saxon soldiers are drawn away, following the Normans apparently retreating down the hill, only to be surrounded and annihilated by them. The shield wall is thinning.

Then, another flurry of Norman arrows trace a graceful arc into Saxon lines. Shields are lifted to deflect them but a cry of horror rises to the skies, too – an arrow has pierced Harold’s eye and he drops to the ground – dead. A band of faithful men surround him, loyal to the last, but they lose their lives and Harold’s standard falls.

The Saxons rally bravely but they are leaderless and the shield wall is disintegrating. The Normans pick it to pieces and William emerges victorious to lay claim to the English throne. This historic field I’m standing in lies soaked in the blood of battle and marks a turning point in the British narrative.

I walk back through the grounds, below the Guesthouse Range and the Abbey, past the dairy and icehouse, to explore the Duchess of Cleveland’s walled garden.

As I head back toward the gatehouse, I pass a tapestry strung up between some trees. It’s not the famous Bayeux tapestry, as one might expect, although there is one panel dedicated to the technique used for that piece. Rather, this one tells the story of a lesser known battle, the Battle of Maldon. The artist informs me that it took him three years and that it’s for sale… for £6 000, if you’re interested and happen to have that lying around!

A badly stitched composite of four photos of the tapestry of the Battle of Maldon. It took forty photos to capture the entire tapestry!
Another badly stitched composite of four photos of the tapestry of the Battle of Maldon. These four frames show the end of the tapestry.

Full Circle
Back in Hastings, it’s already dark as I take another walk along the beachfront, to Queen’s Apartments.

Queen’s Hotel, now Queen’s Apartments, where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny.

This used to be the Queen’s Hotel and it’s where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny in Emmanuel Church, where my day started.

I’ve come full circle. I’ve returned to places that were part of the lives of my ancestors, part of me. I’ve had a history lesson. I’ve touched the past. And I have an early start in the morning!

On the Streets Where You Lived (Part 2)

I pre-planned this now-late lunch for Café des Arts, having stumbled across them on the Internet. Perhaps it was their tagline that got me: “Satisfy Your Coffee, Art and Food Passions”. Perhaps it was their social concern. According to the intro in their menu, the “café was opened by Autism Sussex in 2009 as a social enterprise to provide training and work experience for people with Autistic Spectrum Condition. The aim is for trainees to learn transferable skills which will enhance their chances of future employment in the wider community.”

Hastings Orientation
I order a cappuccino and look around. Large, comfy-looking armchairs encircle low tables in the front windows. Stained glass windows and wooden panelling line the back of the café area. Shelves display works by autistic artists. They’re all for sale, another way Café des Arts seeks to support and empower those on the autistic spectrum.

The café is also directly across the road from Holy Trinity, which appears to be the church of the parish in which my great grandmother’s birth was registered. “Where was she baptised?” I wonder idly. Was it in the beautiful though unusually-shaped church I was now looking at? I make a mental note to find out…

Portion from “Benjamin Tree (Registrar), Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth Given at the General Register Office, Registration District Hastings, 1878 Birth in the Sub-district of Saint Mary in the Castle in the County of Sussex, No 343, Kate Isabella Bolton, Application Number 5995428-1, BXCG 312312 (England, General Register Office, 09 Oct 2014).”

Holy Trinity Church, Hastings, was built on a triangular piece of land formed by the intersection of Robertson and Trinity Streets in the 1850s (about the same time Hastings Station came into being). To my uneducated eye, it seems the site may have been ideally suited to the eccentricity of the church’s Victorian architect, one Samuel Sanders Teulon, a great character, by all accounts. Hastings itself had, of course, been around a lot longer, with its first documented mention in 790. Historically a Saxon settlement, market and fishing town, and port, it later became a popular seaside resort, and remains a tourist destination today.

A Brisk March up Castle Hill
By the time I’ve devoured a delicious goat’s cheese, pesto and salad sandwich, it’s just after half past three. If I’m to make it to Hastings Castle at all, it needs to be today and I’ll need to hurry – last admission is at 16:00. I pay my dues and turn right out onto Robertson Street, marching hurriedly in the general direction of the castle. I appear to be on track by the time I reach Castle Hill Road but it shows me no mercy. It’s a steep climb and, within minutes, I’m gasping for breath and it feels as though molten iron is searing through my calf muscles. Just when I think I’ll never make it on time, I round a bend and see a sign for the castle.

I reach the entrance, barely able to speak, at 15:57 – just in time to buy a ticket and stumble into the last audiovisual presentation of the day. Afterwards, I wander round what remains of the castle, though much of it has long since collapsed into the sea or fallen prey to ruin, decay and disrepair. With its majestic vantage point high above the town and overlooking the sea, it’s easy to see why William (the Conqueror) ordered the building of a fortress here, a few days after the Battle of Hastings.

As with any castle worthy of the title, Hastings Castle has a few ghost stories to tell. One belongs to the structure itself: it is said that 18th century sailors out at sea were occasionally able to look back and see the castle whole, in all its former glory. Ghosts said to wander the ruins include that of a nun, a lady in white, and a woman carrying a baby (who is thought to have ended her own life and that of her child following desertion by her lover). The phantom of murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is also thought to hang out here. Fortunately for my constitution, I saw none of these, although this creature could be seen wandering around:

Yours Truly in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

Middle Street Today
I have no number for the Middle Street location where Great Grandmother Kate was born and, even if I did have, I doubt the building would still be there. Nevertheless, I make my way back down Castle Hill Road and into the “New Town” again. Middle Street is easy to find. It feeds into the shopping district and, today, The Body Shop occupies one corner and a pub the other, at that end. Behind these, the backs of shops are housed in newish-looking buildings. Further up, there’s a university parking lot and then a couple of ramshackle, rundown houses on either side. At the top of the street, graffiti covers a garage door.

If I had more time here, I’d be hitting the museum and archives, finding out more about this street in the late 1870s. For now, I simply get to walk where my ancestors walked, about 137 years ago. I savour the experience and then, as the sun begins to set, I head for the beach and the Old Town.

Walking the Town Flat and Reaping a Reward
It’s a gorgeous evening but the beach is quiet. I meet a seagull who’s very friendly until I try to photograph him. I wander along the pebbles.

Hastings pier and beach (yes, it’s a pebble beach, because that’s mostly how England rolls!)

I pass the miniature golf course and railway, the amusement park, and then the net shops. The information boards tell me, “These Tall Black Wooden Sheds are unique to Hastings.” They were used by fishermen to store their fishing tackle and keep it dry and prevent rot.

I’m now striding down Rock-a-Nore Road in search of Rock A Nore Kitchen, a tiny restaurant earning quite a name for itself, judging from the commentary on the Interwebs. With only about five tables and a reputation which is both glowing and growing, I suspect they may be fully booked this evening. They are.

Not to be easily outdone, I have another evening meal option up my sleeve. I am in England, after all, and on the coast. Fish and chips is pretty much mandatory, and I’ve done a bit of homework: Life Boat Restaurant is the place to go. It’s back a little, in the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, which I’m already wishing I had more time to explore.

While waiting for my order, I notice confirmation of popular Internet opinion taped to the counter in the form of an article from the Hastings Independent Press. It shows Life Boat Restaurant voted the top fish and chip restaurant in Hastings, by the locals, in February this year.

Who’s the Best?

It’s almost 20:00 now and I’ve put in a pretty decent power-walking effort today. I feel I’ve earned my meal but nothing could have prepared me for the size of it.

I’m not sure that there’s any truth to the tagline on the packaging, but I’d like to think so!

They offer a medium and a large cod. I chose the medium and shudder to think what the large would have looked like. The pics do not do it any justice at all but I feel it would have fed at least two and a half people!

Medium cod and chips (allegedly!)

Exhausted, but sated and grateful, I eventually fall asleep in the town where my great grandmother would have done the same, as a baby, over a hundred years ago.

On the Streets Where You Lived (Part 1)

Of course, sleep never seems to last long on a plane before one gets hyper-uncomfortable. There’s a whole lot of squirming and a little bit of shut-eye playing on repeat until breakfast is served some two hours before landing.

It’s a continental breakfast, quite fitting since we’re now flying over France. I’m tracking our progress on the moving map, you know – just to make sure the pilot’s on course and holding altitude and all that! I start lifting the shutter and sneaking peaks out of my window, matching the lights below with our current location. It’s not long before I identify the lights of Paris, beautiful even in the darkness from 40 000 feet. We begin our descent.

Clearing Immigration and Making Connections
I’m a little concerned I may not have left enough time to catch my bus from Heathrow into London so, on disembarkation, I power-walk through Terminal 2 (the Queen’s Terminal, I’ll have you know!). It’s a long walk but welcome after 11 hours airborne, strapped to a seat.

I’m astonished to find that, for UK and EU passport holders, there’s barely an immigration official in sight but, instead, a row of self-service booths. Trying to look inconspicuous, I shuffle slowly towards a free booth, buying time to carefully take in all the instructions: step onto the yellow footprints on the floor, remove your glasses, put down your bags, place the photo page of your passport on the scanner, look at the camera, remove your passport…

The gates swing open! I make a mental note to thank my amazing mother for her wisdom and presence of mind in obtaining British citizenship for me all those years ago. Not only does it make entry into the UK a breeze, without any queues, but it also made leaving South Africa smoother – no questions about visas and how long I’d be staying and where I’d be staying and what other places I’d be visiting – what a pleasure!

Having collected my luggage (which, thankfully, arrived – something I never take for granted), I make my way to the Central Bus Station. I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of a lift. With almost 22kgs on my back and a day pack of 7½kgs clipped onto my front, a thought occurs, “I hope my Eiger-climbing uncle doesn’t disown me when he sees this lot!” I’m quite sure he’s perfected the art of travelling light. I console myself with the fact that I carry gifts as well as electronic equipment, including a mobile scanner and a netbook, none of which a climber would require!

I make it to the bus station with enough time to grab a much-needed cappuccino and a strawberries and cream muffin before boarding the National Express bus bound for London.

Connections of Another Kind
It’s a fine, crisp day here and bright enough for sunglasses. Out on the M4, trees cloaked in gold, studded with jewel-like flecks of red, are a reminder that it is indeed autumn here, though.

We stop at a traffic light and, out of the window on my right, I see a gorgeous old entrance covered in window boxes and baskets brimming with flowers. It’s a beautiful, postcard-British pub. I reach for my camera and then notice the building’s name: The Bolton. I scramble to get my camera out of its pouch as my neighbour, sitting next to the window, sees the scene and tries to snap it with his cell phone. We both miss it.

“Are you a Bolton, then?” he asks. “No, but some of my Dad’s family were,” I respond, “What about you?” “No, but the friend I’m meeting up with in a bit is.” We start chatting after that and I discover he’s from Swindon, coming into London for a surprise birthday get-together at The Shard and then ICEBAR LONDON with some of his college mates, whom he hasn’t seen in years. I also discover he spent his honeymoon in South Africa. He, in turn, discovers a bit of my journey and the reason for it and, when I mention Orkney, shows me his wedding band made there. It certainly looks Orcadian: silver, with Norse-like runes engraved around it. “It’s supposed to read, ‘Hope, Love and Happiness’,” he says, and then, after a brief pause, “Aren’t these random connections just great? They make the world seem smaller, don’t they?” We talk about family and family history and he resolves to dig into his father’s family tree. “I’ve often thought I should look into it,” he muses and, with that, the bus pulls into London Victoria Coach Station and we go our separate ways.

Hastings-Bound
While it is perhaps better known as the site of that (in)famous battle way back in 1066, Hastings is also the birthplace of one of my paternal great grandmothers, Kate Isabella Bolton.

Great Grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton

Her parents were married there, too, and it’s where I’m headed first. A brisk march has me collecting my ticket in London Victoria Station and on the platform within a few minutes. I tuck into my magical strawberries and cream muffin while waiting for the train to depart and soon we’re out of the suburbs and cutting our way through quintessentially English countryside: pastures dotted with sheep and lined with post and rail fences or neat hedges or stone walls, steeplechase courses, and crops spread out like intricately stitched quilts.

Around lunchtime, I find myself at Hastings Station. Another short walk delivers me to Apollo Guest House. After a shower and a little reorganisation of my day pack for strolling the streets, I’m out the door again, meandering down the road in search of Robertson Street…

A Human Whirlwind and Other Discoveries (Part 2)

Part 1

Shrouded
To his credit, dear Mr Wessels shows no signs of accepting defeat just yet. I realise that the exercise book he has with him lists the graves in each plot by row number, so I suggest he look up some of the names we are seeing on the graves to check whether we are indeed in the correct place. Mmm – it seems as though we are in row 10. We move back one row and work our way slowly back up it, checking the names on the graves with those in his book. Now we seem to have passed the place where Aunt Minnie’s grave ought to be. We look around, surveying bits of broken headstones. Behind me, I notice a strip of white under a rampant daisy of sorts. It’s the edge of a grave, and a cactus stands guard at the foot of it. There is no sign of a headstone, just the flourishing mass of a creeping bush with shiny green leaves. I turn and look at it. Swallowing my fear of snakes, I start to push it back. Mr Wessels goes around to the other side of the grave and does the same. And there, underneath that leafy shroud, we discover Aunt Minnie’s headstone, just as my Mum joins us. For a moment, we just stand there, almost in disbelief. Then we thank Mr Wessels for taking time out from his busy day to help us. Reverently, sympathetically, he observes, “Sy was nog jonk, net ses-en-twintig,” then bids us farewell. In a few seconds, he’s gone, although we hear him chatting briefly to my Dad who’s waiting in the car.

My mother and I clear a little more of the vegetation away from the grave. Three simple blocks of white stone (marble?) are stacked on top of one another, each a little smaller than the one below. The top one seems to have had concrete roughly squished around it, presumably to keep it in place. While the job is not well done, I am grateful to the person who sought to preserve Aunt Minnie’s name on her grave. It is evident, too, that something is missing from the top block – ornamentation of some sort which has long since broken off. I never met Great Great Aunt Minnie. A few months ago, I didn’t even know I had a Great Great Aunt Minnie. Yet, standing there, I’m surprised by the emotions I’m feeling. There is a yearning to tend the grave of this lady I know so little about. There is sadness at the loss of a young life, young wife and young mother. Yet there is also a sense of joy and peace that we persevered in finding her resting place, that while she may be gone, she is indeed now not forgotten. Pensive, we return to the car, and then find our way back onto the N6, bound for Grahamstown.

A Jamestown Jewel
It’s a beautifully clear day and the scenery is stunning – mostly farmland. I’m again reading out snippets about the tiny towns on the route as we approach them. Less than an hour outside of Aliwal North, we drive through Jamestown, and then realise we’re about to pass the church I’ve just read about: the Kidwell Memorial Church. My mother and I squeak at the sight, and my father obligingly pulls over. It’s a small, attractive, stone structure, with something resembling a mini-steeple on top of it, which looks as though it may have melted and now leans to one side. The cleaning staff outside don’t have a key, but bush telegraph works a treat, and a few minutes later, somebody appears with one. It doesn’t, however, seem to help much, because it still sounds as though they have to break in to gain access! The petite foyer is illuminated by sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows. Sandwiched between the back wall of the sanctuary and the last wooden pew is an old organ – strong, silent and battle-scarred. More stained glass windows, each set of them different, line the side walls, and to the left and right of the pulpit, above the windows, are little sections of ornate pressed ceilings. It is a place full of character, a place of peace, but it’s suddenly becoming a little less peaceful, as a couple of curious locals have arrived on the scene, doubtless hearing about the “tourists” in town!

On the Road Again
Shortly after leaving Jamestown, we see a sign to Burgersdorp. We’re going to spend the last part of our holiday there, where Granny Iris was born, hence the relevance. A little while later, we see another sign, and then another, at which point my father and I exclaim almost simultaneously, “All roads lead to Burgersdorp!”

The landscape is still breathtaking, though it’s now starting to morph from farmland into mountain ranges, a reminder that we really do live in a country of incredible diversity and beauty. In Queenstown, boards advertising the Dew Drop Inn and the appropriately-named Number Two Piggeries remind us that there is no shortage of wit here, either! We decide to leave the N6 and take the R67 from Queenstown to Grahamstown. Whittlesea and Seymour make cameo appearances along this route, and it’s somewhere between Seymour and Fort Beaufort that we stop at a lay-by for a quick lunch of pies and cherry tomatoes and to stretch our legs.

Henri House
Just after 15:00, we see Grahamstown unrolling before us. Astonishingly, it looks as though we’re driving on the edge of a municipal rubbish dump rather than a hip, arty cultural hub. Rubbish is strewn about the streets and banked up against the curb, and I’m wondering what I’m about to subject my long-suffering parents to. Fortunately, by the time we make our way onto Hill Street, past the Cathedral, things become much more pleasant, and I relax a little.

Madame GPS expertly guides us to Henri House where we will spend the next three nights. I ring the gate bell and Chiara appears, a toddler on her hip and a little boy attached to her leg. We make our introductions and she disappears briefly. When she returns, the boy has detached himself and is tentatively walking toward me with the keys for our unit, delightfully explaining where we need to go and what we need to do. I double-check some of the instructions with Chiara, and then return to the car.

We unpack and get ourselves settled in, which includes checking the DStv channels for my father (“There’s rugby on tomorrow, you know!”). We discover that we can only get SABC, so my mother and I meander out into the garden to “call for help”. As we’re about to walk around to the front of the main house, the side gate opens and a gentleman pulls in on a scooter. He clearly sees we’re looking a little unsure and asks if he can help. His name is Andrew, and he’s just returned from work (teaching at a local school), but seems to be co-owner/manager of Henri House, so we relate our woeful tale and are amazed when he gets straight off his scooter and immediately comes to investigate. After fiddling with the remote, decoder and TV for a few minutes, he discerns that the problem will take a little longer to fix and says he will look into it tomorrow for us.

We do, though, discover that the TV has a USB port, so I download the photos we’ve taken over the last two days onto my laptop and then copy them onto a flash drive. We spend a wonderful evening reviewing our journey down in pictures, and put a brief plan of action together for the next couple of days. After a light supper, we decide to call it an early night. The time to curl up in bed and read before falling asleep is a holiday luxury I crave, so I take full advantage and am soon immersed in my book, in other places, in another time, until sleep eventually takes over and I drift off into dreams…

A Human Whirlwind and Other Discoveries (Part 1)

I haul myself out of bed at 06:00 and, eyes still heavy with sleep, weave about the passage toward the bathroom (which, for me, is not en suite) for that arduous (but very necessary) daily ritual of showering and hair-washing. Conville’s plumbing, fittings and fixtures (right down to those funky bell doodads next to the main bed to summon ladies’ maids, à la Downton Abbey!) may be in need of some maintenance, but the whole place has a cosy yet intriguing feel about it, as though its rooms are begging to be explored. To me, a night here could be described as a quintessential stay at grandma’s: wooden floors, high brass beds, interesting antique furniture, piles of books, patterned wallpaper, and old paintings and photographs lining the walls.

There is, however, plenty of hot water on tap, and it is only after a thorough drenching and a cup of coffee that I feel capable of walking without the support of a wall or window sill.

History over Breakfast
Breakfast is at the long table in the rather grand dining room, with another guest couple who are passing through on their way to Sandstone Estates, Fouriesburg and then onto the Kruger National Park.

“Is that Scottish?” asks the lady, on hearing my mother’s accent. I smile and incline my head toward my mother, “Yes, that is Scottish, and that,” now indicating my father, “is South African!” Over yoghurt, cereal and fruit juice, we learn that the original owner of Conville was Scottish. Linda, our amiable hostess, and her husband Anthony, now own and run the farm, but it was Anthony’s grandfather who started it all and built the house for his young bride. Anthony appears, right on cue, and, while we tuck into our fried eggs, bacon, tomato and toast, he recounts some of Conville’s history, including his grandfather’s engineering background, involvement in an irrigation scheme on the Orange River and interactions with Sir Herbert Baker. It was Grandfather Gerrand’s early childhood in a Scottish castle together with the architectural skill of Herbert Baker which resulted in the design of this magnificent home, the construction of which was completed in 1908.

Linda asks what we’re doing in the area, and we explain that we’re hunting for relatives. Dead ones. We recount yesterday’s traumatic experience of searching for Aunt Minnie’s grave in the old cemetery, and Linda nods sympathetically. “We’re constantly fighting with the municipality about it,” she says. “But you should speak to Madeleine at the Aliwal Museum…” We need to track down Mr Wessels before we leave and still get to Grahamstown today, but have a day trip planned to Aliwal North from Burgersdorp later in our itinerary. Linda helpfully takes down details of the family we’re looking for to pass onto Madeleine before our return. Then she leaves the room briefly and returns flicking through a copy of Driehonderd Jaar Nasiebou – Stamouers Van Die Afrikanervolk by Dr D.F. du T. Malherbe . “There are no Wessons,” she says, handing the book to me. I’m almost twitching with anticipation as I quickly search for other surnames in our tree: Becker, Bolton, Meyer, Nelson – all have entries, but I don’t recognise any of the other details. I make notes regardless. Perhaps they’ll come in handy someday…

It only takes us a few minutes to pack our overnight bags back into the car, and then we’re bidding our gracious host and hostess farewell and heading back into town.

A Human Whirlwind
We pull up outside Community Services, just as an official-looking gentleman strides out of the office. I’m not about to let history repeat itself, so I launch myself out of the car and accost him: “Excuse me, Sir. Are you Mr Wessels?” To his credit, if he was surprised by my “attack”, he didn’t show it. A thick Afrikaans accent responds, “No, I’m Blackie Swart. Are you looking for Uri ? Can I help?” I explain that we’re looking for the grave of a relative, and he says, “Ah, no – you will need to speak to Uri, then,” and leads us back into the office building. “Where is Uri?” Mr Swart asks the man who is behind the bars of reception today. “He’s in a meeting,” comes the response. My shoulders start to droop with disappointment already, but we explain that we will be back in town the following week. Mr Swart recommends we make an appointment to see Mr Wessels then, and also suggests we speak to Madeleine Joubert at the museum. We confirm that we already have her in our sights. I’m exchanging details with Mr Receptionist when he suddenly says, “Just hold on. Just hold on. I think the meeting’s finished,” and disappears down a passage to my right. A few seconds later, he pops his head around the corner at the end of the passage and beckons to me. We thank Mr Swart for his help and quickly follow Mr Receptionist, who leads us to a tiny office, indicating that the occupant is Mr Wessels.

Mr Wessels, who is having a very loud, demonstrative exchange with a colleague, ushers us in with a “Kom in! Kom in!” before flinging a pile of papers into an in-tray, still muttering as his co-worker leaves the room. “Sit,” he says and I sit, as someone thoughtfully brings in a chair for my mother. Once again, we explain ourselves and, to my surprise, Mr Wessels picks up a note on his desk with the details we had given the receptionist yesterday. “O, ja – hierdie een,” and he jumps up, dashes to a steel cabinet which seems to be bursting at the seams, flings open the door, burrows around and emerges with a printout which he triumphantly drops on the corner of his desk and furiously starts paging through. “Wesson… Wesson… Wesson… Hier’s sy!” It is an alphabetical list of graves in the old cemetery and, sure enough, there is Aunt Minnie’s name. Mr Wessels scribbles the grave number on a piece of paper: 419009. Apparently, this means plot 4, row 19 and grave 9. He grabs his keys and says he’ll show us the grave. In the same breath, he puts his keys down again and spins round to rummage in the embankments of paper that have built up around his desk, mumbling something about “my ander boek”. Then he finds it and holds it aloft – an A4 exercise book. Snatching up his keys once more, he heads out the office at breakneck speed. The whole meeting has probably taken less than five minutes. Outside, we discover that my father has vanished, doubtless to buy a newspaper. We phone him to let him know that Mr Wessels is going to show us the grave, when Mr Wessels gets a phonecall. Apparently, someone has been digging somewhere and unearthed what appear to be human bones which apparently makes it Mr Wessels’ problem. Completely unphased, he’s not to be thrown off his current mission, but is clearly in a massive hurry, so we decide that I will drive to the cemetery with him while my mother waits for my Dad to return.

Mr Wessels is talking non-stop as his bakkie bounces obediently over and through the potholes which he barely seems to notice. As he careers around the left hand bend toward the graves, I say a quick prayer of gratitude for my seatbelt, without which I may have been flung straight out the drivers’ side window. He pulls to a stop at the same dejected-looking stone pillars we had seen the day before. It’s almost as if they themselves are somehow ashamed of the state of this that they are presiding over. Mr Wessels is out of the vehicle almost before I’ve managed to undo that seatbelt. He marches down the overgrown pathway in his boots, still talking ceaselessly, as I trot gingerly behind in my billowing skirt and flip-flops, camera swinging from my arm. He comes to an abrupt halt opposite a round, black sign with a large number 1 painted on it in white and points out a similar sign across the pathway with a large number 3 on it, before confirming with me in an easy English-Afrikaans mix that we’re looking for plot 4. I reply in the affirmative, and he continues talking at high speed (as much to himself as to me), deducing that plot 4 must be off to our left. And then he shoots off again, exercise book now open, ploughing through the knee-high grass, while I try to keep up and avoid broken beer bottles at the same time. He’s counting now, the row numbers in the plot, which, curiously, start at 9. How he manages to make any sense of the seemingly haphazard arrangement of overgrown graves, I’ll never know, but then I hear him say “neentien” and see him bolt off into the undergrowth on the right. He’s counting again, this time from 1. He squeezes between a large grave and a bright green shrub, before clambering over the corner of another grave and finally pausing to ask me who we’re looking for again. I remind him of the surname and he starts reading the graves: “Thomas?” “Nee,” I say, and he steps into the next row, muttering that perhaps it is one of the several broken graves in the vicinity, or one of those whose headstone has fallen, facedown into the dirt. I start losing hope – again. What are the chances that Great Great Aunt Minnie’s grave is still intact in all this mess?

Part 2

An Adventure Begins and a Naiveté Dies (Part 2)

Part 1

End of an illusion
Roughly half an hour later, we cross the Orange River into the Eastern Cape and Aliwal North, where we will spend the night. It is, however, still a little too early to check into our lodging, so we decide to try our hand at finding the old cemetery, for it is there that a recently “discovered” family member (more about that another time!), Great Great Aunt Minnie Florence Wesson née Bolton, ought to have been buried. Thanks to the eGGSA Photo Project, I have the coordinates on my laptop, so I boot it up and wake up the GPS at the same time (note to self: next time, have holiday & genealogy docs on Google Drive!). I punch in the latitude and longitude and Madam GPS (later christened Maggie by my father) thinks a little and then, in her clipped, efficient way, commands us to turn right. We obey. “Turn right,” she says again. And we obey, again.

Now it’s important to understand that we had, somehow, formed a rather naïve, romanticised impression of searching for the graves of family members. It seems almost laughable now, but, to an extent, I think we may have been picturing clearly defined plots separated by well-maintained pathways nestled in neatly manicured gardens. And so, with great anticipation, we are now eagerly straining for signs of Aunt Minnie’s resting place…

Madam GPS issues her next instruction, to turn left this time. Instantaneously, our illusion begins to crumble. There, ahead of us and to our right, sandwiched between the road we are on and the Orange River itself, lies the cemetery. A couple of tired gate posts hint at what must once have been an entrance. Above the rampant bushes and veld grass, a few of the taller gravestones are just visible. We slowly pull to a stop, processing the scene before us.

My super-brave mother is out the car first, and already plunging into the undergrowth. In a skirt and thin-soled flip-flops, I’m a little more tentative, but breathe a quick prayer and pick my way carefully toward some graves. There are no paths that I can see. Broken bottles, cans and litter lie strewn around. Many gravestones are broken; some seem to have been vandalised. The slabs on top of some graves have cracked open. I try hard not to look into the gaping darkness below, but images of coffins and skeletons are already clamouring for attention inside my head. I give myself a stern talking to and move on, taking care not to trip on any of the rubble that may send me sprawling toward one of those cavernous holes. While I have thought of cemetery recording projects as incredibly useful, I now understand their significance first-hand.  I know this burial ground has not been fully photographed, so I whip out my camera and randomly snap a few headstones as I continue my search.  Perhaps they will be of value to someone… Mum is valiantly forging through the brush, almost out of sight now, but it is evident that our random searching is highly unlikely to yield any results. We know Aunt Minnie died in 1911, so we start looking at the dates on the headstones – perhaps certain sections of the cemetery were used at certain times…

I suddenly notice some cardboard and flattened grass behind a grave, and, with a shock, realise someone has been sleeping here. Almost simultaneously, an awful smell hits me, and then I see why – a little way away, in front of another grave, buzzing flies and used toilet paper indicate that someone has been defecating in this place, too. I hurry away, gagging.

My mother is also returning from her search. Even the dates on the graves provide no real clues as to the organisation of the plots. Dejected, and more than a little horrified at the state of the cemetery, we realise that, without help, we have almost no chance of finding Aunt Minnie’s grave. So I haul out the laptop again and look up the address I have saved for the Aliwal North municipality.

Plan B
It’s not far, and we pull up outside the building a minute or so later. Mum and I go in, and the telephonist/receptionist person beckons to us, but seems to be on a phone call and helping someone seated across from him at the same time. He still needs to deal with a couple of people in front of us while juggling a steady stream of telephone calls. He does so efficiently and we are soon asking him whether there are cemetery records which could show us where our family member is buried. He tells us we need to speak to a Mr Wessels at Community Services, which is in a different building. He explains to us how we get there, and we step out into the sunlight again. We find the Community Services department without any hitches but, as we’re parking, a gentleman in a white bakkie is hurriedly pulling out of a parking space. He vanishes in puffs of reddish dust and Dad says, “I bet that’s Mr Wessels!” Sure enough, the lady behind the bars of reception confirms that “he has just left” and she doesn’t know when he’ll be back, but she takes our details and those of Aunt Minnie and says she will pass them onto Mr Wessels for us. We ask her what time they open and inform her that we’ll be back in the morning.

Of food and lodging
By now it is well beyond lunch time and also check-in time, so we drive back through the town, following the map I had printed to Conville Farm, where we will stay tonight. We find it just outside the town on a dirt road. The house is an old, rather imposing structure, designed by Sir Herbert Baker. We amble in through the open front door, but there’s nobody in sight and all is quiet. We take in the wooden floors, pressed ceilings and antique furniture, and then spot a bell on a table in the entrance hall. We ring it. Still nobody appears. After a few awkward minutes, we ring it again – louder – and listen. Ah – footsteps! They’re padding down a carpeted passage toward us. It turns out that they belong to Linda Gerrand, the lady of the house, who shows us to our rooms, each of which has a cute little French door opening onto a patio and semi-enclosed garden.

We unpack our overnight bags and the cooler box before enjoying a quick picnic lunch on the patio: leftover egg and bacon rolls, pork pies and cherry tomatoes. Then there’s time for a nap before getting ready for our evening meal. This we decide to take at the Riverside Lodge’s pub and grill, on the banks of the Orange River. Parking is limited and awkward, but the atmosphere is relaxed and the view in the evening sun is gorgeous. Dad settles on a serious steak – fillet with a cottage cheese and avo topping, Mum goes green with a salad and I choose a pizza. While waiting for our meal, we put a rough plan together for tomorrow and decide on our route to the “City of Saints”. As we look out over the river, we recount bits of our day, and give thanks, for our travels thus far have been safe, filled with family, fun and adventure…

Bridge Over the Orange River from Riverside Lodge